Vulnerable Nursing Home Patients Need Ability to Sue in Court as Government Agencies Fail to Protect Them
By Leslie Bailey, Staff Attorney
According to a new report just released by the Center for Investigative Reporting and reported by KQED, the failure of California regulators to adequately investigate and pursue claims of abuse and misconduct by nursing assistants and health aids is “putting the elderly, sick, and disabled at risk.” In fact, the regulators that are charged with protecting vulnerable patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are either conducting “cursory and indifferent” investigations, or simply closing cases without taking any action at all. The report underscores how critically important it is for people to have the ability to sue when loved ones are harmed by nursing home neglect—or worse.
Take Elsie Fossum. One morning in July 2006, the 95-year-old was found lying in a pool of blood, her arm broken and her face described by the registered nurse in charge at the nursing home as “beaten to a pulp.” Within a few weeks, Elsie died as a result of the wounds she’d suffered. A nurse suspected one of the nursing assistants, and a report was filed with the Department of Health. But according to KQED, the agency shelved the case for 6 ½ years and finally closed it without any investigation.
The CIR report paints a grim picture. There are approximately 160,000 nursing assistants and in-home health aids working at hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health facilities throughout California. As of 2009, the backlog of reported abuse and theft cases was so high that is was deemed a “crisis.” But rather than prioritize investigating, according to the report, “the state Department of Public Health quietly ordered investigators to dismiss 1,000 pending cases … often without a single phone call.” While the number of cases closed without action is on the rise, the main tool by which the agency is supposed to protect patients from abuse—revoking the licenses of nursing home employees—has plummeted in recent years. In other words, the abusers are permitted to continue working at their jobs, where they can continue to commit more horrific abuse. It’s gotten so bad that even a former Public Health director warns Californians: “do not count on the government taking care of you.”
Fortunately, we have the civil justice system, and anyone whose loved one is abused in a nursing home can file a lawsuit – right? Think again. As the Wall Street Journal reported, nursing homes—like pretty much all other businesses—are increasingly jumping on the forced arbitration bandwagon. That is, they’re requiring everyone who checks in to sign a contract forfeiting their constitutional right to sue. Instead, per the fine print, any claims against the home or its employees must be brought in private arbitration, in a secret proceeding before a hired gun chosen by the nursing home. But of course, the last thing on your mind when you’re in the painful process of admitting an elderly parent to a home is the fine print of the nursing home’s multi-page contract. The nursing home, of course, knows exactly what it’s doing: a study done by the nursing home industry itself found that as arbitration has increasingly replaced court as the forum for dispute resolution, the amount of money recovered by abuse victims and their families has decreased—even as complaints about poor treatment have risen.
If the government agencies charged with protecting our loved ones aren’t up to the task, then the only way to prevent more horrific abuses like that of Elsie Fossum is through private litigation. But the nursing homes know this, and they’re doing everything they can to use forced arbitration to exempt themselves from lawsuits. It’s time to fight back.
For more information, you can also read our article, “Combating Abusive Arbitration Clauses in Nursing Home Contracts.”